On a sublime spring day, brilliant sun streamed through the windows of a Boston Ballet studio as principal dancer Jeffrey Cirio and his colleagues gathered to rehearse. They were in the midst of performances of the company’s “Edge of Vision” program at the Boston Opera House, in which Cirio danced in the world premiere of Jorma Elo’s “Bach Cello Suites” and performed the fiendishly difficult and virtuosic central role in Lila York’s “Celts.”
But that day, they were rehearsing for the next program, just a week and a half away. In “Thrill of Contact” (May 14-24), Cirio would not only perform in Balanchine’s “Theme and Variations” and William Forsythe’s “The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude,” he’d celebrate the world premiere of a new piece, “fremd” — his own choreographic debut on a Boston Ballet subscription program.
So Cirio could be forgiven for calling rehearsal together with a joke. “OK, I’ll be outside while you rehearse,” he said with a good-natured laugh.
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little stressed at some points, learning to manage my dancing and also think about choreographing at the same time,” he later acknowledged. “But it’s a good challenge, and I like to take challenges head on.”
Soon Cirio and his dancers got down to business. “Let’s do it!” he said.
As the electronic rumbles of Aphex Twin filled the space, sock-footed dancers slid through sinuous curves and coils, off-center balances, and slow-motion contortions. Phrases were peppered with a florid, mysterious vocabulary of intricate hand and finger work – flicks, points, and quivers, with arms in semaphoric angles, like some strange sign language.
The work is built around a central character and three couples who represent various aspects of his life. It’s a loose concept that leaves plenty of room for individual interpretation, which is just how Cirio, 23, likes it.
“I don’t want to be too literal,” he said. “I like to have people make it their own, almost like a movie where you never find out what the ending is. I want people to want more.”
“Fremd” is a German word that means foreign, alien, or strange, Cirio explains. “I wanted to explore that train of thought . . . what it means to face the unfamiliar. The whole piece is basically a peek into the main character’s mind.”
The music for the ballet represents two distinct aesthetics: the electronics of Aphex Twin and a Olaf Bender’s “fremd,” a music soundscape with text that inspired the work, versus romantic nocturnes by Chopin and John Field. The nocturnes spark Cirio’s lyrical side, with duets of tender couplings and sweeping lifts. He says the musical dichotomy reflects how quickly the mind moves around from one thought to the next, often with drastic switches in content and emotion.
After growing up outside Philadelphia and training with Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, Cirio became a trainee at Boston Ballet’s school, where his sister Lia was already a company dancer. He joined Boston Ballet II (the second company) for the 2007-08 season, but left to pursue more training and competitions. While preparing for the Helsinki International Ballet Competition in 2009, he choreographed his first work, “Fleeting,” in honor of his grandmother. Performing it helped him become the first American dancer to win a gold medal at the competition.
That same year, Cirio was awarded the coveted Princess Grace Fellowship, which offers salary assistance for new members at nonprofit dance companies, and he joined Boston Ballet’s corps de ballet. Rising rapidly, he was promoted to second soloist in 2010, then soloist in 2011, and in 2012 he became the company’s youngest ever principal dancer, at just 20 years old. Onstage, he’s impressed critics and audiences alike with his impeccable technique and dazzling charisma.
But Boston Ballet artistic director Mikko Nissinen has also given Cirio opportunities to choreograph — for the company’s annual fund-raising ball, Boston Ballet II, and a series hosted in the company’s intimate Black Box space.
“He’s so freaking smart, very mature for his age, which is why he is the kind of dancer he is,” Nissinen says. “He is so fast learning everything, I want to keep him active and interested, fully alive as a dancer and creative artist.”
The new piece bears the unmistakable influence of Boston Ballet resident choreographer Jorma Elo, as well as others.
“He really understands choreography, from Forsythe to Balanchine, and Jorma. I’d be disappointed if I didn’t see any of those influences,” Nissinen said. “But when I look at him, I see more him. He’s tried to go further, building his own aesthetic. I think he has the real talent to be a significant voice in our art form.”
Close friend and Boston Ballet second soloist Paul Craig, who has known Cirio almost 10 years and danced in four of his pieces, agrees.
“There are influences from almost everything he’s danced in with Boston Ballet. What Jeff adds is a youthful fusion of all types of dance, even hip-hop. His strong suit as a choreographer is that he knows how to pull out what you bring as a dancer.”
This summer, Cirio and his sister Lia, who is now a principal dancer at Boston Ballet, are launching the Cirio Collective with 10 current or former Boston Ballet dancers. He is creating a new work for the collaborative troupe that will be premiered at the Cape Dance Festival in Provincetown on July 25. But he’s clear that this is a side project: His focus remains on dancing. He says being onstage, with the applause and the adrenaline rush, is what he lives for.
“These past couple of years have been good for me in choreography,” he said. “I think [the Collective] will be a good outlet for me. But in the coming year, I want to concentrate on dancing.”
And beyond that? “I try not to think about the future, but I hope eventually I might be able to choreograph for another major company like Boston Ballet, or even after my dance career maybe take over a company. Time will tell.”
Thrill of Contact
Presented by Boston Ballet
At: Boston Opera House, May 14-24. Tickets: $29-$152. 617-695-6955, www.bostonballet.org